Dan Hampton, who at 31 has had eight knee operations, slumped on the bumper of his car late Sunday afternoon, trying to let some of the emotion from the Chicago Bears' come-from-behind 17-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals drain out of him. A fan reached out to shake his hand. "Don't squeeze," said Hampton, the Bears right defensive tackle.
Steve McMichael, the tackle who plays next to Hampton, is also 31. He has had five knee operations. After the game he was walking around the locker room, puffing a cigar, answering questions on the go. Someone asked him about the three-man rotation Chicago used, spelling either of the two tackles with 340-pound William Perry. "Yeah, but when it came down to the end, you saw who was in there—Dan and me," he said. "I guess they figure with 13 knee operations between us, we can use a little rest." But not too much.
McMichael was questioned about the way the Bengals pounded the perimeters of the Bears defense. "Have to see the films," he said. "I was too busy trying to keep those 300-pounders off our middle linebacker."
That linebacker, 30-year-old Mike Singletary, stood by his locker and tried to put the afternoon into perspective. "The most important thing today was character development," he said, "which has nothing to do with blowing people out. These games are what you need at the beginning of the season to develop a team."
"You mean you played badly enough to lose and still won?" he was asked.
"Exactly," said Singletary.
Chicago, with nine drafted rookies on its roster, is a team in transition. Eight other members of the 45-man active roster are in their second year. That's an awful lot of youth for a Super Bowl contender. Here and there you can find a young emerging star, but the heart of the defense, which has been the heart of the Bears for so many years, remains the three old-timers who man that middle triangle—Hampton, McMichael and Singletary. Remove one of them from the lineup for an extended period, and Chicago is in trouble.
The Bengals did most of their damage by working on the Bears' defensive ends or immediately outside them. Cincinnati pounded away for 179 yards on the ground against a Chicago defense that had held 10 teams to fewer than 100 yards rushing last year. The Bills ran for zero yards against the Bears in '88, the Redskins for 28, the 49ers, the NFC's No. 1 rushing team, for 78. But that was last year.
On Sunday, the Bears' left defensive end was Trace Armstrong, a first-round draft choice from Florida. The Bengals knocked him off the ball, and Ron Rivera, the linebacker behind Armstrong, repeatedly found himself facing a convoy of 280- and 290-pounders turning the corner. Indeed, Cincinnati got 112 of its 179 rushing yards on the right side.
Richard Dent, Chicago's sacker, lines up at right defensive end. He's coming off a broken left ankle that sidelined him for five games at the end of last year, and he's a month or so away from being 100%. He can put on a straight-ahead rush, but his ability to change direction has yet to return. Bears coach Mike Ditka says Dent, who normally plays at 268 pounds, is 10 pounds too heavy and "still has to work himself into shape." Dent insists his weight is close to normal, but on the field he looks like just another burly guy who makes the occasional play but lacks consistency.
On Sunday, the Chicago defense was on the field much too long—for 80 plays; by comparison, the Bears had only 63 offensive plays. What saved the Bears was a pair of sustained drives, a long kickoff return by wideout-running back Dennis Gentry and some spectacular plays by Hampton.
And give Chicago quarterback Mike Tomczak credit for getting the job done the hard way. Nothing came easy for the man who replaced Jim McMahon. The players have accepted McMahon's trade to San Diego. "Jim's a close friend, and I miss him," said center Jay Hilgenberg earlier in the week, "but all of us know this was the right decision for both him and the Bears."
The Chicago fans aren't convinced. They arrived for the game in a booing mood, and they didn't have long to wait. On the Bears' second play, Tomczak tried to hook up with halfback Neal Anderson, who was running a post pattern. But Tomczak mistimed his throw, and free safety Rickey Dixon intercepted it. Dixon went 28 yards to the Chicago 25 to set up the Bengals' first TD, a four-yard pass from Boomer Esiason to running back James Brooks. The fans let Tomczak hear their displeasure.
"I knew that pass was a mistake right away," said Tomczak. "I could hear Earle Bruce, my college coach from that great passing factory, Ohio State, saying what he must have said a million times: 'Never throw late over the middle.' But I knew it was going to be a long game. It was going to go the full 15 rounds."
Once upon a time such a mistake would have been the beginning of the end for Tomczak, who's now in his fifth year in the league. He would have looked toward the bench and seen McMahon, recovering from some injury or other, warming up. He would have come walking off the field having to face Ditka's icy glare, knowing damn well that one more screwup and that was it, the hook. Not now.
"I don't care if the fans boo or scream or holler," said Ditka after the win over Cincy. "Mike's my quarterback, and I'm pleased with his performance. He tried to make the plays; a few times he gambled and tried to push the ball downfield. Great quarterbacks take risks."
On the Bears' next possession, Tomczak took them 66 yards, down to the Cincinnati six, thanks to 37 yards' worth of passing and some solid running by Anderson, who would finish with a career-high 146 yards on 21 carries. Then Chicago did something strange. It gave the ball to Anderson three times and to Brad Muster—a 231-pound halfback who lines up in the fullback position—once. The Bengals stopped Chicago on the one. Matt Suhey, the best pure fullback on the team, was on the bench. Why? "For the life of me, I don't know," said Ditka. "I'll have to look into that."
In the waning moments of the first half, Tomczak directed an 80-yard touchdown march, scoring himself on an 11-yard quarterback draw. After pumping a fist in Dixon's direction, he went chest-to-chest with David Fulcher, Cincinnati's 234-pound strong safety, in the end zone. "He had said something about how he was coming after me," Tomczak would say later, "about how he was going to knock me out of the game—you know, the usual NFL type of camaraderie."
Following another interception by Dixon, the Bengals went ahead 14-7 in the third quarter on a 12-play, 66-yard drive. The final play was a five-yard run by Ickey Woods. Esiason hurt the Bears with short passes off bootlegs and play actions, all set up by that relentless ground game. Chicago had stayed in the game with a pass rush and blitzing scheme aimed at first-year center Paul Jetton. But in the second half, Cincinnati moved right guard Bruce Kozerski to center and put veteran Max Montoya, a late-reporting holdout, in Kozerski's spot. The change firmed up Cincy's front wall, and Esiason looked unbeatable on the TD drive.
Gentry's 63-yard return on the ensuing kickoff set up a Kevin Butler field goal and made the score 14-10. Back came the Bengals, who at this point might have put the game away had Hampton not decided it was time to show why he's a four-time Pro Bowler. Earlier he had sacked Esiason. He also had made a solo stop on Woods on fourth-and-inches from the Chicago 18. Now, with Cincinnati on the Bears 26, he beat left guard Bruce Reimers, the Bengals' best offensive lineman, on an outside move, hurdled Brooks and wrapped up Esiason for a 10-yard loss. It was a three-point sack, forcing a punt instead of giving Cincinnati a chance to try a field goal.
The Bengal punt carried to the five. The clock showed 11:31 to play. The game-winning drive was something Tomczak says he had "thought about at halftime—winning it with a drive at the end. But 95 yards? Well, if that doesn't tickle you a little...."
Tomczak had a hand in four big plays: a 21-yard square-in to a leaping Gentry on third-and-10 from the Chicago 18, a 29-yard crossing pattern to tight end James Thornton, a two-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one and, finally, a 20-yard TD toss to Thornton on a right-to-left crossing route. "A tight throw," Tomczak said. "I kept telling myself, Don't force it."
So where does this win leave the Bears? This Sunday they play Minnesota—good passing team, spotty running, stiff defense. Tomczak, who had moderate numbers (10 completions in 24 attempts for 159 yards), showed resilience and character. The defense, once a stifling, crushing operation, has turned into a bend-but-don't-break outfit keyed by the three aging All-Pros. "I think they realize," Hampton said, "that life without us won't be pretty."
The Bengals, who have a very good team, were not despondent in the locker room. They were happy that they had played well, that they had hung in after a lackluster exhibition season. All-Pro noseguard Tim Krumrie, who suffered that awful broken leg in the Super Bowl, was back, a little rusty but still functional. So was their right linebacker, Reggie Williams, who had suffered both a knee injury and an appendectomy in camp. Yes, the Bengals played inspired football, but so did the home team. Fifteen rounds to go.
Thornton, who had 86 receiving yards, fended off Dixon on this catch.
Tomczak (18) showed some of the traits of his predecessor, including a willingness to challenge strong safeties like Fulcher (33).
Did Muster fail to score on a fourth-and-one because he was a halfback playing fullback?
McMichael kept pressuring Esiason (7), who might have led Cincy to a win had Hampton (99) not sacked him in the fourth period.